Unmasking our Self-Deception about Self-Improvement

In reviewing the incongruous medley of Dan Brown‘s Inferno and two new translations of Dante‘s classic (by Clive James and Mary Jo Bang), Robert Pogue Harrison writes:

Much of the fascination of the Inferno revolves around Dante’s probing of the covert psychic recesses of his characters’ inner will. The sinners’ great soliloquies are self-serving and fraught with irony. One cannot take them at their word. One must bring to bear on their speeches a “hermeneutics of suspicion” that is alert to the discrepancy between what they tell us and what they show us. Oftentimes the characters themselves are unaware of the way they are masking their true motivations, which makes it all the more imperative that the reader adopt an analytic distance from their self-presentations. In sum, the Inferno educates the reader in the ways of deception and self-deception, and in that respect remains one of the great archives of human psychology. (‘Dante: The Most Vivid VersionNew York Review of Books, 24 October 2013).

In my post on the ‘Sisyphus of sorts’ a couple of days ago, I had sought to provide an unmasking of projects of self-improvement, which all too many of us find ourselves engaged in with little hope–based on their persistent failure–of bringing them to completion. (I hesitate to say ‘similar unmasking’ for fear of being viewed as comparing my attempt to Dante’s!) That post–hopefully!–speaks for itself, but let me, at the risk of sounding excessively pompous, just embellish its claims just a bit.

Repeated, and failed, attempts at self-improvement and self-help display a familiar pattern: the old behavior is discarded in a burst of moralistic enthusiasm, the old lifestyle is deprecated and disdained, and enthusiastic reports are provided on the glories and attractions of the new path chosen. There is relief at a millstone discarded and this palpable emotion is loudly and visibly noted.

Yet, through all this, all too often, the attractions of the older way of being, which indeed, had made it such a persistently adopted mode of behavior, are not paid their due. We fail to recognize that that path had its own role to play in the forms of life we lived; we fail to note the deep habits it formed; no clean surgical excision of it from our selves has been effected. And then, there is the simple matter of the ‘sophomore effect’; the rapid gains visible in the early days of our new-found virtuous life are quickly replaced by the far more mundane, glacial increments of the life that comes about when such novel behavior has become commonplace.

We remain impatient; we miss the easy pleasures of the older way of being, which suddenly, now seems more attractive than ever. So we lapse. But now we encounter again its pathologies. And so we resolve to change again.

The self-deception here is that we do not seek the publicly avowed goal of self-improvement, but merely the movement away from a kind of stagnation, a state of wallowing. When we encounter yet another one, as is inevitable, for life cannot give us endless novelty, we seek out our ‘fall’ again, so that we may ‘climb’ again. In doing all this, we are reminded again, of Goethe, Burke and Freud’s claims that happiness, for most, is characterized by novelty and rapid transition, not by persistent, quiescent states.